OVERVIEW: It's so easy to complain about student writing. It feels like a right and a privilege to do it when you work so hard at trying to help our students be better writers, readers and thinkers. Further, culturally, as (nearly) the first half of our semester has shown us, the inclination of literally everyone--teachers, employers, public-policy makers, parents--contribute in various ways to a narrative that writing has declined precipitously.
As we have discussed in class, there are two ways to react to this: you can say, as most folks do, that the only way to fix things is to "go back to basics"--whatever that means in that moment. Typically, however, it usually involves more testing and more correcting of error.
Composition and Rhetoric arise out of a moment in education when folks questioned if this was the way to go. Now, to be clear, it has not always been well-received and, if we consider current conversations about student writing skill, it would seem it has not reversed this enigmatic trend towards worse and worse writing. However, the field is also a hopeful one. We see this, most recently in the work of Inoue. But we can also see it going all the way back to 1980, during that restless time when Open Admissions created a new landscape in colleges and universities.
Basic Writing, as an area of teaching and scholarship, is the title given to courses that were essentially for those writers identified as not sufficiently prepared to take writing courses for credit. The concept has evolved over time to a greater and lesser extent depending on the institution. Community Colleges, for instance, still often offer these "remedial" classes, particularly for multilingual readers and writers. BSU got rid of its version of such a course in 2004 and replaced it with a 4 credit co-requisite model to support less resourced students. The Community College of Baltimore County has had an incredible impact on basic writing, pioneering the stretch model of writing instruction that extends the amount of time students spend in first year writing.
Before leaving our historical look at the field, I'd like for us to read from Mina Shaughessy's important work Error & Expectation. She was one of the first scholars who looked at this new landscape and said there are things we can do. She was a writing teacher at ground zero of Open Admissions, City University of New York. Her work was scene as groundbreaking at the time that it came out. Now, certainly, since that time, she's come under heavy fire for some of her ideas. But there has also been renewed interest in her work in the past year (Sadly she died from cancer not long after the publication of E & E).
POST: I started by the semester by saying that one way to flip the script on writing instruction is to change the narrative of "students are bad writers" to "writing is a hard skill to learn." In what ways does Shaughnessy speak to one or the other of these statements? In what ways does her discussion of "basic" writing speak to how we talk about writing instruction and error to day? And yet what seems forgotten from her argument in how we shape writing instruction?
10/6/2020 06:51:47 am
It seems like all of these articles begin with the same old story: college students entering college are not academically “ready” to be there. They are nowhere near prepared in the writing realm to produce that proficient academic writing. Seeing these students make college professors either run for the hills, or pull their hair out. While it is understandable that consistently “bad” writing was showing up in the college level classrooms, it is important to note that writing is hard; failure and error are not only inevitable but necessary. Failure and error should in fact be welcomed in the writing classroom, and good writing is not always necessarily correct writing. Throughout this semester, we have talked alot about writing deficit. Shaughnessy acknowledges and expands upon writing deficit by defining what she calls basic writing. She refers to basic writing as what others might call remedial or developmental writing. This is basically the same thing as a writing deficit and depends on the notion that students are inadequately trained in the writing realm when entering college. Shaughnessy explains however, that what some may refer to as basic writers are writers who are really just beginners. We as writing teachers need to shift our mindset -- our students’ success depends on it. Basic writing is the product of writers who have not yet had the opportunity or incentive to participate fully in the writing process -- the opportunity to produce, revise, and revise again. The general population are people who produce basic writing. As writing teachers, we need to stop lamenting what students do not produce and instead use this “deficit” as a springboard for growth.
10/6/2020 01:42:40 pm
Shaugnessy’s work speaks to the statement “writing is a hard skill to learn” by suggesting that students are not unteachable. She notes that students who struggle with literacy skills are not there because they are any less smart than their peers. She states that they are beginner writers who still need to make mistakes. By stating that students are simply at a different place in their process of learning to write, Shaunessy refutes the idea that students are simply bad writers and replaces it with the idea that anyone can be taught to be a good writes if they are given the proper environment to do so in addition to proper guidance. Her ideas that basic writing can be useful to all students and that it can create a community among students seem to reflect the universally required freshman writing courses we have today in many universities. In these courses, it is not simply about grouping weak writers and “fixing” them, but it is about bringing a diverse group of writers of different skill levels together and introducing them to college-level writing practices. Despite these ideas which influence our discussion of writing today, one thing I felt was missing in Shaunessy’s discussion was how higher-order concerns could be addressed. Much of the chapter discussed grammatic and syntax errors in student writing, but one thing I felt was not addressed was how to help students develop their ideas after they are more comfortable with sentence-level errors. Shaunessy even mentions that the book spends more time on lower-level concerns than teachers should in their classroom. This imbalance between lower-level and higher-level concerns makes sense in the context it was written in, however, because these remedial courses are meant to prepare students for the rest of their time in college where professors who are not focused on teaching writing will not tolerate those types of mistakes.
10/6/2020 03:05:33 pm
Shaughnessy’s overview of “Basic Writing” instruction in the classroom disrupts the implication that students who struggle with writing are insufficient (mentally, socially, etc.) and seeks to offer a new lense with which to view student work that, …” does not ignore the linguistic sophistication of the students nor yet underestimate the complexity of the task they face as they set about learning to write…” ( Shaugnessy, 396). Writing is a learned skill requiring training, which Shaugnessy further supports when she explains that students qualifying for BW instruction are beginners, who like all beginners “learn by making mistakes” (390). It is the educator’s responsibility then, to develop a teaching pedagogy that extends beyond identification of error in student work, and desires to understand the reasoning for a repetitive mistake or particular challenge in student writing. Shaughnessy’s discussion of basic writing, and the way we should recognize errors in student work parallels the kind of approach that ESL teachers use today when instructing language learners’ English development. As the Critical Approach to BW writing instruction suggests, ELL students have often been marginalized by one of the biggest mainstream societal inequalities- language. Many students that come to the U.S. knowing little or no English are literate and very knowledgeable in their home languages, yet traditionally their skills and abilities have been viewed as deficits rather than strengths. When they first begin their language development, they produce writing true of any beginner language learner, exhibiting challenges with verb forms, syntax, subject/verb agreement, yet as Shaughnessy indicates, pointing out each error in a student’s work does little to improve their overall writing and I would add that this is a very tedious and ineffective process, leading to a demoralized and unmotivated student. She does however insist that an error approach is necessary in writing instruction to prepare BW students, in large part because students themselves seek “prescriptive grammar”, to be proficient writers. What Shaughnessy fails to mention however is that students feel so much pressure thanks to the longstanding expectations in both society and academia that good writing is correct writing. Instead of an error centered approach, academia should be employing a translingual approach to learning that disregards code switching as the responsibility of the student. As learners use their own dialects to navigate “metalinguistic, sociolinguistic and attitudinal preparedness”, a translinguistic approach advocates for students and teachers to value above all, communication between communities.
10/6/2020 05:51:15 pm
In Introduction to Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing Shaughnessy supports the narrative that writing is a difficult skill to learn rather than the common notion that students are becoming worse writers.Shaughnessy coined the term “Basic Writing” to refer to beginner writers rather than looking at the students in remedial writing courses as unable. She dismisses the idea of labeling these beginner writers as “handicapped” or “disadvantaged”. She emphasizes the idea that errors and failures are expected. She writes, “BW students write the way they do, not because they are slow or non-verbal, indifferent to or incapable of academic excellence, but because they are beginners and must, like all beginners, learn by making mistakes”. This belief should be conveyed to our students more by teachers. By explaining the normalcy of errors in writing, students’ writing anxiety may decrease which in turn helps them write more freely and as a result grow as a writer. Shaughnessy mentions the idea that our perception of student errors is often the focus of our misconceptions about basic writing students. I think it is important to then familiarize ourselves with common errors and investigate why the errors are being made. Culture and whether English is the students; second language plays a large factor in these errors and their overall writing. I agree with Shaughnessy that we must reduce the punishment for errors made due to cultural differences. I think this connects to Inoue’s work about making writing more equitable. Many ELL learners actively look for patterns to try to predict how to use their second language. One aspect I wish Shaunessy focused more on is how to handle errors when students are hung up on them. She explains that students often feel they need more grammar lessons and prescriptive grammar. This lead me to think how to undo this thinking that has been so deeply engraved in our students that grammar errors do not define one as a writer or student. Not only do we need to reassess the errors being made by BW writers but we need to address our thinking about errors to our students to try to change the classroom ecology.
10/7/2020 04:43:59 am
Shaughnessy begins the introduction by describing the results of students who were not prepared for a university setting being admitted to colleges. She immediately begins to discuss their writing and its flaws, saying that throughout the first few weeks, it seemed that it would take a miracle to turn these students into writers. This has been somewhat of a recurring theme throughout many of our discussions in class, and throughout much of our reading. Shaughnessy defines basic writing as a starting point for writers, rather than saying that remedial students cannot learn how to write by the time they reach college. It is a refreshing viewpoint to read about; it is important that we do not assume that, because students are at a certain age, they “should” know anything. These BW students are beginners and should be expected to make some mistakes, but often by the time they reach college, they get bogged down in the errors in their writing. In class, we have talked about what makes “good writing”, and Shaughnessy writes about how for many BW students, good writing is equated with correct writing. This would lead them to believe that they are not capable of learning, but Shaughnessy argues against this. BW writers are simply beginners, and they need to be taught from the beginning rather than being expected to catch up. She briefly mentions that it will be difficult for young adults to learn how to write, but I think that she fails to mention how discouraging it would be. As an adult, after going through twelve years of school, to be continuously corrected on writing mistakes and errors would cause many students to shut down. Regardless of the teacher’s knowledge and skills with teaching basic writing, students know when their writing is not up to par, and human nature often makes it difficult to overcome the pessimism that comes with starting a little bit behind everybody else.
10/7/2020 01:06:49 pm
In Shaughnessy’s introduction she opens by describing the way diversity quickly spread through the City University of New York as they adopted an open enrollment policy. This change created a situation where a much wider array of students found themselves in the college classroom. It also meant that professors quickly identified a deficit in writing ability. An increasingly diverse student population is wonderful, but Shaughnessy quickly paints a bleak image of professors proclaiming their students “problems at this stage were irredmediable…[and that they] appeared by college standards to be illiterate.” In other words she reveals a school culture defined the fact that “students are bad writers.” As I said--bleak. This reminds me of what Inoue was saying about the dominance of white discourse in the expectations we create for young writers. It made me think of the fact that this man who grew up to represent a leading voice in Composition Studies believed himself to be what Shaughnessy refers to as a “basic writer.” However, it seems that she is a champion of the other way to describe writing. It seems that, like Dr. Torda (and...can I be honest? I definitely stole this and said it to my students this year) says in the directions for this post: Writing is simply a hard skill to learn. Shaughnessy puts it most simply when she writes that “...BW students write the way they do, not because they are non-verbal, indifferent to or incapable of academic excellence, but because the are beginners and beginners must, like all beginners, learn by making mistakes.” I LOOOOVE this line so much. I spend so much of my life around people who are talking about students that they work with. I’m going to be honest. I hear SO MUCH TALK ABOUT WHAT STUDENTS CAN NOT DO. It drives me absolutely bonkers. These kids are under 18 years old. It has taken me so many years to become the writer I am today and I have so many years to go. I have said this in a different post--but my classroom is a practice space. Without spaces like that I’m not sure what we’re doing.
10/7/2020 01:37:54 pm
For this week’s reading we begin to examine the relationship between basic writing, deficit thinking, and how these ideologies shape writing instruction in a classroom. As presented in the text, basic writing originated out of a need for general admission university level teachers to differentiate between the three generalized kinds of students before them in the 60s & 70s – traditionally adept students, those who survived secondary school but didn’t thrive, and lastly those who were lacking in formal education experience for any number of factors, including race, language, and socioeconomics. While Mutnick & Lamos’ chapter on “Basic Writing Pedagogy” works to highlight how BW has shifted and changed throughout the years, Shaughnessy’s article foregrounds the emphasis on error-centered approaches and provides rationale as to why this can be a helpful place to start with hesitant writers. What I felt strengthened the connection between BW and deficit thinking was the idea that although teachers of writing are looking for errors or deficits, they are also working to unpack where the errors are originating, “to tease out the reasons that lie behind the problems” (390). Herein lay the richness of learning, and Shaughnessy emphasizes that all beginner writers will make mistakes, but how we approach the following revision process is what can help develop skills that empower students.
10/7/2020 06:43:28 pm
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